Friday, May 31, 2013

Doomed: Teasing Out the Story Behind Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four

 Well, it’s time to start working on your superhero costume for the San Diego Comic-Con. And it’s time to support a super-project that’s just been launched by my buddy, Mark Sikes, along with filmmaker Marty Langford. Back when I was Roger Corman’s story editor at Concorde-New Horizons, Mark served as Roger’s casting honcho. One of his most challenging gigs was finding the cast, on a hurry-up basis, for a little superhero flick called The Fantastic Four, based on the Marvel Comics characters, that was being co-produced on the cheap by Concorde and a German company, Neue Constantin. 

A lot of us know what happened next. The film was shot, the cast and crew were ecstatic, and a big publicity push was under way, much of it funded by the actors themselves. Then came word that Constantin’s Bernd Eichinger had just paid big bucks for Roger’s share of The Fantastic Four. Eichinger promptly shelved the finished movie, presumably to make way for a lavish studio version that finally appeared in 2005. The original prints of the Concorde quickie were supposedly destroyed, but pirated copies have been circulating ever since. Now Mark and Marty are out to satisfy our craving to know exactly what happened. They’re planning a full-length documentary called Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.  To finance this labor of love, they’re calling on the film’s many fans to cough up some dough. (This crowdfunding idea is really taking off: I’m told that even Roger – who’s richer than God -- is using it to help pay for a shoestring remake of Munchies. But I digress.)
Here’s the scoop: Mark and Marty have set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise the $52,000 they need to make their movie happen. Naturally, donors get some very cool perks. But the deadline is June 20, so time is flying. (You might also check out the official Doomed Facebook site.)
What makes Doomed sound so promising is that most of the creative forces behind Concorde’s Fantastic Four are already on board. One of them is Carl Ciarfalio, stuntman extraordinaire, who impersonates The Thing in the movie. Carl has been part of some much more elaborate projects, like The Amazing Spider Man. But he relished the chance to work with director Oley Sassone and a talented cast, despite the privations everyone faced on set. For instance, “The suit that they made for me was really spot-on. But they didn’t have the budget to put a cool suit on underneath it. So I was wearing 15 pounds of rubber every day,” without a cooling system to provide basic comfort. Ouch!

Nonetheless, Carl sees the film’s awkward special effects (like Dr. Reed Richards’ impossibly stretchy limbs) as part of its charm. When watching today’s big-budget superhero movies, the audience knows it’s “just a bunch of guys on green-screen, with stuff goin’ on behind ‘em.” By contrast,  Concorde’s Fantastic Four plays like an homage to the mid-twentieth-century world of Marvel Comics. Says Carl, “That’s what makes this film cult-like, because it’s kind of a throwback to the Fifties and Sixties films that they used to make before special effects were a big deal.” 

Even at the time, Carl didn’t assume The Fantastic Four would lead him to fame and fortune. But the movie’s cast thought they were participating in something special. “And it was. It was something special. I knew out of the gate.” That’s why it hurts to have been part of a film that will never officially be seen. Doomed  is guaranteed to bring us a lot of great stories about that.
 Thanks, Carl, for supplying me with some of your own snapshots from the Fantastic Four shoot. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rance and Ron Howard: Oklahoma’s Resilient Native Sons

Oscar Hammerstein had it right: Oklahoma’s a place where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. We’ve all seen the photos coming out of Moore, Oklahoma. It was flattened last week by a EF5 tornado, which sent winds of 210 mph barreling across a stretch of prairie three miles wide and seventeen miles long. Twenty-four people died, including ten children.

But we’ve also been hearing about the resilient folk who make Oklahoma their home. They’re hard-working and plain-spoken. They may not be as picturesque as the farmers and the cowhands in Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, but their can-do spirit helps them survive disasters without hysteria. Which makes it fitting indeed that Ron Howard is Oklahoma-born.

Ron Howard seems to have led a charmed life. He made his professional acting debut at age five. When he was six, The Andy Griffith Show made him a star. He passed through his awkward teen years without much harm done, and at twenty he starred in his second hit TV series, Happy Days. When he was twenty-three he fulfilled a lifelong dream by directing his first film, Grand Theft Auto. Quickly leaving B-movies behind, he helmed such Hollywood hits as Splash, Cocoon¸ and Parenthood. Apollo 13 brought him critical respect, and A Beautiful Mind brought him two Oscars. Today, as both director and producer, he has a full slate. Most recently, he’s continued his involvement with Arrested Development, for which he serves as executive producer, while also reprising his deadpan narrator’s role and playing himself on-camera. Great careers don’t just happen. Sure, there’s luck involved, but also hard work, as well as an ability to shrug off disappointments and keep moving forward.  

Everyone who has worked with Ron Howard speaks of his common sense and his ability to remain down-to-earth while wielding serious show biz clout. And everyone credits his parents, Rance and Jean, for molding him into the man he has become. The effervescent Jean Speegle was a star in Duncan, Oklahoma, population 22,000. She served as editor-in-chief of her high school yearbook and was elected student council president. After graduating, she was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. On February 10, 1947, Jean left a dance class and stepped into the path of a speeding truck. The result: a brain concussion, a broken arm and shoulder, and a pelvis shattered in three places. She lay unconscious for ten days in a New York hospital. At last she was put on a train for Oklahoma, where doctors warned her worried family she might never walk again. But Jean, always a fighter, beat the odds.

Studying drama at the University of Oklahoma, she met a country boy who had walked off the family farm with the dream of becoming an actor. Their courtship took place during a bus-and-truck tour with a children’s theatre troupe. (Rance would get down on his knees and add a fake beard to play one of Snow White’s dwarves.) Not long after the birth of Ronald William Howard, they moved to New York and then Southern California, in pursuit of acting careers. Their young son would far outstrip them both in terms of Hollywood fame and fortune. But they lived on Rance’s earnings as a character actor and worked hard to keep their small star a regular boy. Heart disease claimed Jean far too soon, but Rance continues to take on small but meaty roles at age eighty-five. He’s a survivor, and a credit to his Oklahoma roots, those roots that hold fast even when life seems to be blowing in the wind.   

Friday, May 24, 2013

Three in the Basement: Is it GIRLS Who’ve Gone Wild?

Two weeks ago, America was shocked by horrific news from Cleveland, Ohio. It seems a school-bus driver named Ariel Castro had apparently been holding three young women in his basement for nearly a decade. They had endured sexual abuse, and one had borne a child while in captivity. The women had vanished separately from this tidy working-class neighborhood between 2002 and 2004. At the time of their abduction, they were 20, 16, and 14 years old. According to his lawyer, Castro plans to plead not guilty.

In Wednesday’s Hollywood Reporter, I read Stephen Galloway’s exclusive interview with Joe Francis, founder of Girls Gone Wild. Francis has just been convicted by a Los Angeles jury of assault and false imprisonment for his brutish behavior toward three young women he met in a local nightclub. He talked them into his limousine, whisked them to his Bel-Air home, and went wild when they wanted to leave. Now Francis, hotly proclaiming his innocence, insists that his jury was “mentally fucking retarded” and “should all be lined up and shot.”

I don’t know what’s going on with the number three, but naturally I’m appalled by the idea of men holding women against their will. I’m also peeved that these terrible news items have brought to mind one of the most annoying movies of all time. I’m talking about a so-called comedy called Three in the Attic.

Picture me in 1968. I was a UCLA grad student varying my academic routine by covering film for the school paper. Because Three in the Attic was meant to appeal to hip young Baby Boomers with an open attitude toward sex, AIP  invited me to the sneak preview. I couldn’t believe what awaited me.

The leading man, Paxton Quigley, is played by Christopher Jones. In an instant cult classic called Wild in the Streets (also AIP, also 1968), Jones portrayed a handsome twenty-two-year-old rock ‘n’ roller who got himself elected president of the United States. Three in the Attic casts him as a campus lothario who succeeds in romancing (and sleeping with) three different co-eds. The first is a sweet and beautiful blonde, Yvette Mimieux. The second is a sassy black art student, played by Judy Pace. (The idea of a white guy enjoying an on-screen fling with a black girl was regarded as the height of hip in the late Sixties.) The third is a hippie chick (Maggie Thrett) who has traded in her bagels-and-lox upbringing for flower power. They consume some magic brownies; she covers him with body paint; he claims he’s an abused homosexual, then gets her in the sack.

Soon Paxton, while pledging fidelity to each of his conquests, is screwing them all, until they discover his secret and vow revenge. Trapping him in the attic of a campus dormitory, they demand non-stop sex. Oh puh-lease! At base, this is another of those male fantasy flicks, in which women are so desperate for a man’s special touch that they’ll do anything -- anything, do you hear me? -- to avail themselves of his sexual powers. And, this being a Hollywood movie, it winds up with a happy ending. A female dean at the college (the usually estimable Nan Martin) shows her sympathy for the girls’ situation by letting them off scot-free. And then Jones belatedly discovers that Mimieux is his own true love, so we’re assured they’ll live happily ever after. 

Forced sex: one man being serviced by three women. AIP thought back in 1968 that this was a fresh and larky idea. In Cleveland, in 2013, it doesn’t seem so funny.